The first division of the County Championship is wide open this year with as many as six counties expected to be in contention for the coveted title, although most have again installed Yorkshire as outright favourites. Jeremy Blackmore was in London at the weekend and popped into Lord’s to have a sneak peak at two of the sides Somerset will face over the next month and assess their early season form.
Lord’s is a magical sight at any time of year, but particularly so on the opening day of the cricket season.
Walking through the Grace Gates into the ground which has welcomed more county seasons than any other, it’s hard to avoid the history and proud tradition which goes hand in hand with this unique place.
The Old Father Time weather vane looks down on the field of play, reminding you that this is, incredibly, the 202nd season of cricket to be played on the ground’s hallowed turf.
It’s hard to resist a special frisson of excitement as the players emerge from the famous pavilion. History may have been written, but at the dawn of a new season anything can still happen. Legends prepare to be made, reputations grown, records broken.
The Home of Cricket was immaculate as ever and a modest, but decent crowd had turned out to see the opening encounter between Middlesex and Nottinghamshire.
Pundits are unable to make their minds up about Nottinghamshire this year. For some, the county, with its wealth of international talent, is likely to be a key contender for the county championship. James Taylor, Alex Hales, Samit Patel, Michael Lumb and Harry Gurney have all represented England very recently and form the nucleus of what, on paper should be a formidable line-up. However their international form has been mixed and it’s likely that many of them will deemed be surplus to requirements by their country this summer. Which of course would work in Nottinghamshire’s favour.
The club has been astute with its overseas signings. Brendan Taylor, the former Zimbabwe captain, has joined as a Kolpak player, fresh from back-to-back hundreds in the World Cup. Meanwhile pacemen Vernon Philander and Ben Hilfenhaus will split fast bowling duties between them.
For others though, Nottinghamshire’s bowling strength doesn’t match their batting and predict a mid-table position – and possibly a spell in the relegation zone.
Middlesex know all about relegation battles, staring down the barrel at division two cricket until the final session of last season when their draw at Old Trafford consigned Lancashire to the bottom tier.
They are expected to fare better this year with Nick Compton rejoining their ranks after five seasons at Somerset. Steve Finn, Eoin Morgan and Sam Robson are likely to be available for much of the summer, although Chris Rogers will be a huge loss, away with the touring Australians. To compound that problem, Rogers’ replacement Adam Voges, has himself, been unexpectedly called by the Aussies. Compton is one of a number of Middlesex players said to have expressed an interest in captaining the side in his absence.
On a very windy, but bright morning on Sunday, Notts made their way to 82-2 at lunch, Tom Helm picking up Steven Mullaney for 22. Middlesex have high hopes for 20-year-old Helm, his awkward action belying someone who bowls with controlled pace and gets the ball to swing. Helm could count himself unlucky that he didn’t have more than one wicket against his name in the morning, with two slip chances put down off his bowling during the session. Look out for him at Taunton in two weeks’ time.
Hales was needlessly run out by a direct throw for 0 just before lunch, so it was impossible to assess his form. However on a spring morning, Nottinghamshire would probably have been happy to have been only two down after the number of chances that Middlesex had created.
After the break, James Harris and Tim Murtagh bowled unchanged for an hour as the two Taylors, Brendan and James, forged an ominous-looking partnership in the afternoon sunshine.
The miserly Murtagh kept things typically tight in conditions made for him, getting the ball to swing both ways. Harris, meanwhile, who has disappointed since moving to Middlesex from Glamorgan two years ago, bowled a mixture of rank long hops and balls which lifted and genuinely troubled the batsmen.
For a man whose most recent cricket was in the World Cup cauldron in Australia, (Brendan) Taylor has adapted remarkably quickly to the rather colder climes of England in April. He opened his first-class account for Nottinghamshire last week with a century against the students of Loughborough University and followed it up here with another three-figure innings. Content to punish the bad ball and play each ball on its merits, Taylor showed his versatility and timing, driving the ball beautifully off both the front and back foot on both sides of the wicket, but also hitting over the top when circumstances allowed. He is an excellent acquisition by Nottinghamshire and will be a prize wicket for opposition bowlers throughout the summer.
By comparison, his English-born namesake at the other end, who was shunted around the England batting order ahead of the World Cup, was far less fluent. He played a number of forced shots, instead of being content to play himself back into form by taking the ones and twos on offer.
However by the time the pair had brought up their 100 partnership, Nottinghamshire were looking extremely comfortable at 180-2 and the talk around the ground was of a likely first innings score of 450 or more.
At that moment, (James) Taylor misjudged a lame pull shot off a back-of-a-length delivery from Harris, which popped up to Nick Gubbins at midwicket.
That needless dismissal exposed a streak of fragility in the Nottinghamshire batting line-up and precipitated a collapse which mirrored the one taking place at the same time at Taunton.
In a remarkable spell, Harris claimed four wickets for 1 run in 11 balls. After picking up Taylor for 36, his inswinging deliveries to Patel, Wessels and (Brendan) Taylor accounted for all three batsmen lbw. Harris only played in this game because of an injury to Toby Roland-Jones. It remains to be seen whether this performance spurs him onto even better things after a winter spent working on his action with Middlesex bowling coach Richard Johnson.
Nottinghamshire had slumped from 180-2 to 183-6 in the space of just 16 deliveries.
Finn, who got the pace and carry out of the surface and will remain a dangerous customer in county cricket despite his England woes, almost picked up Will Gidman on 8, only to see him put down in the slips. Fortunately for Middlesex, the drop was not costly as Helm claimed his wicket with the next ball he faced, reducing Nottinghamshire further to 203-7.
Vernon Philander, who of course played for Somerset for a short period in 2012, threw the bat for a few overs, scoring 17, before falling to Voges to leave the visitors in real trouble at 224-8.
Not for the first time Nottinghamshire were indebted to veteran keeper and captain Chris Read, who played one of the stubborn innings for which he’s become renowned. He was 62 not out when Nottinghamshire were finally dismissed for 298 early this morning (Monday) after 133 minutes at the crease.
Harris finished with figures of 4-75 from 23 overs and Helm 2-70 from 18.
Middlesex struggled on day two today (Monday), being dismissed for just 181 in 66 overs, Patel and Gurney picking up three wickets apiece. Compton fell for just three on his return to championship cricket at the Home of Cricket, but no batsman scored more than the 35 made by both Robson and Simpson, despite several getting starts.
In reply Nottinghamshire had moved onto 101-2 off 25 overs by close of play to put themselves firmly in the box seat with a lead of 218 and two days remaining. They may not look the finished article just yet, and will be concerned at the way they threw away a strong position on Sunday afternoon. However they have a side full of talented cricketers who – if they can all start to fire at the same time – could easily finish in the top four. On this showing though, it’s hard to see them challenging Yorkshire or Warwickshire for the title. Somerset face them in the County Championship next month when they travel to Trent Bridge on 17 May and will prove tough opponents on their home ground.
Middlesex meanwhile seem to offer a better chance of victory for Somerset when the north London county visit Taunton on 26 April. If conditions aid the seamers though, expect their bowlers to capitalise – provided they can get their slip cordon to start holding onto chances.